PCT – CA Section A
Day 1 – Campo to Lake Morena (Mile 0 to Mile 20)
Thursday, April 28, 2016
As mentioned in a previous post, hiking the entire Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) is a goal of mine, but not one I can accomplish in one four-to-five-month swoop. I have to be realistic at this point in my life and break this massive 2,650-mile goal into manageable segments. I use Jeffrey Schaffer’s “Pacific Crest Trail: Southern California” as my guide and, following its breakdown, chose to do the 110-mile Section A from the Mexican border to Warner Springs, California, for this excursion. Spring time is the best time to attempt a traverse of this desert-like section and we were blessed with near-perfect hiking weather.
Starting out at the Mexican border, my friend Brian and I were intrigued by what we saw. The first thing we noticed, after the sign post commemorating the southern terminus of the Pacific Crest Trail, was the openness of the terrain. Hills and valleys undulated in every direction. Next we saw, running along the boundary between two countries, a barbed wire fence that separated us from a wide dirt road. On the other side of the road, a metal barrier, probably eight or ten feet high, stretching from West to East. Each metal panel was numbered. We were at about panel 40, which seemed odd considering we were some 40 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean and those panels were not a mile wide each. On the other side of that wall was Mexico, indistinguishable in features and landscape from the US soil upon which we stood. It stretched out to the south as far as we could see.
As I let the panel numbering head-scratcher go, I looked all around, knowing this was the beginning of an odyssey, both personal and physical. I identified the trail we would tread, then took in the surroundings. A layer of clouds blanketed the sky above. A dense cover of chaparral, that low-lying scrubby vegetation found throughout the Southern California environs, carpeted the ground. Chaparral does well where there is little moisture. It also does well at snagging your clothes and slashing your skin if you get too close as you hike. It adds color to the dry hillsides along which we hiked. I imagined it also gave shelter to all sorts of wildlife, some of which might bite me or try to eat me.
I quickly set those worries aside as I have yet to be bitten by anything other than a bug and have remained to this point uneaten. Rattlesnakes and mountain lions were top of the list of wild things that could inflict serious harm along this section of trail, but I neither saw nor heard either of them for the entire 110-mile sojourn I began that day.
Brian and I were quickly enveloped in stimulating conversation. I enjoy hiking with him because he is full of knowledge, humorous stories, insights, and a wealth of experiences. He’s a great story-teller and a keen problem solver. We hiked and talked and took in the sights and snapped photos and reveled in being “out there” and unplugged, sort of. See, the thing is we had great cell phone reception for most of the first two days and ended up taking care of some business along the way, but that was more of a stress relief than an annoyance for both of us.
Meeting New People
As we skirted around the shoulder of Mount Hauser, we met several other hikers who had just started out on the trail that morning as well. One had a goal to make it to Canada; another said, “We’ll see how far I can get.” He was probably fifty pounds overweight and was not in peak conditioning. However, he was out there to test himself against the elements and had a determination about him that impressed both of us.
The next PCT hiker we met was known as the “Dutch Vegan Hiker.” He, too, was out there to test his determination, but also to decompress from some of the intense stresses life had put him through in recent months. As it turns out, we would spend quite a bit of time with this European gentlemen over the next few days. His story was intriguing and made me realize that everyone who starts on this trail has a unique set of life experiences and motivations behind this grueling undertaking. He used GoFundMe and sponsors to round up the money, food, and equipment he would need. Being a vegan, his dietary needs were far different than mine, so my offer of food did little to help him. We did make a donation to his cause and, after hearing about his difficulties with his career, his relationship with his father, and the Colombian government-induced separation from his wife, I felt a connection to this man and his story. Since he couldn’t work in the country of his wife’s origin (Colombia), couldn’t get her the necessary paperwork to leave the country since she had no job to go to, and because his father was unsupportive and aloof, the Dutch Vegan Hiker decided to follow his passion for hiking and the outdoors to the same trail that had drawn me and Brian in.
That first morning was spent under mostly gray skies and cool temperatures, but as we began our climb into the mountains after a brief lunch of beef jerky and protein bars, the sun peaked out of the clouds a few times. The vistas from the trail as it overlooked valleys and adjacent peaks were spectacular. Lush greenery mixed with reddish and grayish rock and soil, which in turn mixed with the bright yellow pods on the twelve-foot-tall Yucca plants in full bloom that dotted the slopes.
By four in the afternoon, we passed a campsite along Hauser Creek that was already sprouting half a dozen tents. Our goal, Lake Morena, was still just over four miles ahead of us. We powered up the hill through more chaparral and into the trees – mostly bay and laurel. The breeze had picked up with the elevation gain and the sweat was beginning to chill me to the bone. But, my wife called me as I worked my way down a short set of switchbacks to the campground, thus distracting my attention away from the cold. We arrived at the campground about 20 minutes before sundown, giving us just enough time to find dry clothes and the bathroom where we could change quickly and easily.
We Made It
We found our way to the PCT backpacker’s section of the campground and joined a group of about thirty other hikers spread out across the grassy field. Running water and garbage cans were a welcome sight, allowing us to replenish that most vital commodity and dump out a few extra ounces of weight in the form of wrappers and food containers.
Though our legs were tired and our feet sore, Brian and I were in good spirits and pleased with the 19.5 miles we had covered on our first day. We were off to a good start.